by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Minhal Baig’s Hala was one of the first films acquired by Apple TV+ after taking Sundance by storm in 2019. The semi-autobiographical story centers around a seventeen-year-old Pakistani American woman coping with the unraveling of her family.
LA Screenwriter’s John Bucher sat down with Baig recently to talk about how she made such a specific story universal, using material from her own life on the screen, and how she differentiates a heroine’s journey from a hero’s.
John Bucher: I’d love to begin with one of the key themes in the film — secrecy. Had that theme been something that was of interest to you for a long time or did that organically arise in this story?
Minhal Baig: The film was drawn a lot from my own life. It’s not autobiographical exactly, but there is a lot of emotional truth, and the experience that I had growing up navigating multiple identities and feeling like I was presenting a version of myself to my family and then another version to other people. It felt that I was compartmentalizing and that neither of those identities was the true self and that I should find out what that was.
The secrecy came out of omitting one identity and that my family, my parents, didn’t exactly know everything about my life outside of the home and vice versa. The secrecy emerged naturally in making the narrative about that tension of figuring out who you are and learning that if we are to blur those internal and external lines, then we are living more truthfully, living honestly. Part of being honest is to live with fewer secrets. It’s not that you can’t have parts of yourself that are private, but that you’re choosing to make them private because you want to and not because you feel like you have to.
John Bucher: Hala’s character feels so universal, regardless of what tradition you come from or how you might identify racially or through gender. At what point did you recognize that you had such a universal story and a universal character to share with the world?
Minhal Baig: In writing it, I didn’t know that. I think in writing, it was just about portraying this one specific young woman’s journey and making sure that it felt grounded and that everyone in the story was multi-dimensional and real and that they had their own things going on even if they were the supporting characters in Hala’s story, the larger movie.
I think the moment that it really settled that it was resonating on a more universal level is when we shared the film with an audience at Sundance and we had such a warm reception. It really felt like people were responding to the movie who didn’t have Hala’s specific lived experience, but they saw something in that journey that really touched them and moved them. And then taking the film to other festivals and gauging the audience’s reaction and having what I’ve mostly experienced as just an emotional and personal relationship with the movie, which is the best that we could have hoped for. It’s always in making the very specific stories that we can try to find the universal.
John Bucher: I think oftentimes parents in these stories get regulated to stereotypes or very flat characters, but I felt for them and their perspective on her life. Have your parents seen the film?
Minhal Baig: My mother hasn’t seen the film yet, but I’m hoping that she does and gets the chance to engage with it and I get to talk to her because I do feel that this story for many people has helped them process a pain that they’ve been carrying and/or experienced. For me, it was the process of healing and making this movie and dealing with how, when I was younger, I really marginalized my own mother, and I couldn’t see her as a fully realized being in the same way I idolized my dad and I didn’t see that he could be fallible.
That found its way into the story. I really wanted to make sure that they all had another dimension to them and they had their own journey to go through in the movie alongside Hala’s journey. I do think that Hala’s mother is on a journey for independence and self-identity herself, because she’s starting to realize that she can exist outside of the roles that are expected to have her as mother and wife. She can still be Hala’s mother, but she’s also an individual.
John Bucher: How did you go about finding the actor who would play Hala? I would imagine with a character that’s so personal to your own experience, finding the right person to fill those shoes has got to be a challenge.
Minhal Baig: We cast a really wide net and we were looking for someone who could portray a highly internal conflict, someone who could project emotional depth without saying very much. There’s many scenes where Hala is completely reacting and she’s not saying anything or she’s withholding. And that was going to be the challenge in finding someone to portray the character. And when Geraldine Viswanathan’s tape came in, it was really clear to myself and the producers that she was Hala and that she added this new dimension that we hadn’t seen before and weren’t expecting.
She has a real lightness and brought a real levity and charisma to this character, which made her feel more human, because on the page, she is a very self-serious teenager and feels wise beyond her years and emotional and capital R romantic, and we feel that she’s a very emotionally intelligent young woman, but she’s also imperfect and she’s also still a teenager. And I think as someone who’s closer to that age and that part of her life, Geraldine brought that energy to the table. And that’s the moment at which Hala leapt off the script pages and became a real person.
John Bucher: What do you feel was the big lesson for you in bringing this story to the screen?
Minhal Baig: This story was something that I’d been working on for a really long time. I had moved to Los Angeles in 2015, and the intention was to make a short film that would serve as a proof of concept for the feature. And then in the writing of that feature, it was a real act of vulnerability to share these parts of my life that are deeply personal and kind of terrifying on paper but also to direct and later edit and then share with audiences. Prior to that, I think that I was really scared of approaching those themes and those storylines in my work because they were things that I was running away from and I didn’t want to put them in the work.
And then in making Hala, I was not quite putting everything to bed or to rest, but I was reconciling that I had gone through something that was challenging as a young woman and I wanted to portray it onscreen as honestly as I could and put myself out there on the line and be vulnerable so that eventually when the film was onscreen and there are people watching it, that they too can be in a place to be vulnerable to receive it, because I think that was the biggest lesson I learned. In order for an audience to find an emotional connection, I really had to put myself out there and have the connection with the work, too.
I had to go to places where it was uncomfortable for me to go. Otherwise, if I didn’t go there, then I wasn’t taking a risk in the storytelling. I’d be playing it safe, and in a sense, denying that these things happened — the real issues and real problems that young women go through. So being vulnerable was the biggest lesson that I came away from making this movie, and it’s something that I take with me now that I approach my other work.
John Bucher: Can you talk about how you approached rounding out the rest of the cast? How did you go about finding the right voices to fill in the story?
Minhal Baig: When I cast Hala, the next step was finding her family, and they really needed to feel familiar and that they cared about each other. When I saw Purbi’s tape, it was just so clear how she saw herself in Eram, because she actually knew people like Eram in her life, women who had been boxed into certain roles and then were finding themselves later on in their lives. And she personally deeply related to the movie, and in the same sense, Azad, who had never acted before, had grown up in a culture of patriarchy, and so he felt very sensitive about playing a character who was very far away from who he is, but a character that he actually really understands.
And then when it came to Jesse’s character, we were looking for someone who was very emotionally intelligent and compassionate and kind, and Avy Kaufman, our casting director, pitched Jack Kilmer, and I had watched him in Gia Coppola’s film, Palo Alto, and I just thought he had an immediate screen presence and was someone who I really felt like would get Hala and be at her level. With Gabriel, he submitted a tape. We searched far and wide for someone to play the role of Mr. Lawrence, and I just wanted someone who had a great humanity. Gabriel is one of the warmest people.
Anna Chlumsky was someone who was also pitched to us. I believe it was someone, maybe one of the producers who pitched her. I just knew from having seen her in other work, I’ve seen her in Halt and Catch Fire and Veep, that she has a great comedic sensibility, but she’s also just very warm and you can’t hate her. Even when she’s doing something that you don’t approve of or you don’t like, you know that she’s not a bad person.
And in casting these characters with actors, it was crucial that they approach these characters without judgment, that they do it in a way that’s humanizing and that none of the characters are good or bad. They’re just living their life and dealing with the circumstances they’ve been dealt. And I wanted all of them to have the richness of having lives outside of the margins of this movie, and they all brought that to their characters and to the movie.
John Bucher: Speaking of issues of representation and patriarchy, I read that you made some decisions about having women in department head roles and having women represent a certain percentage of the below the line crew. Can you talk about that and how you felt like that affected the film?
Minhal Baig: It was very important to myself and the producers that we hire inclusively behind the scenes and below the line, and every person that we hired was the most qualified candidate for the job. It was important for all of us to have multiple female perspectives on this movie because it’s a young woman’s coming of age. Over 70% of our crew consisted of women and all the department heads were women. Our cinematographer, Carolina Costa, our costume designer, Emma Potter, production designers Sue Tebbutt, our editor Saela Davis, our composer Mandy Hoffman, our UPM Carrie Holt de Lama, Marsha Swinton, our locations… Every department head, it was a woman and they were the most qualified.
The story really resonated with them and it made a big impact because it was such a warm and supportive environment and people were really heard. I’ve never been on set like that before, and I do think that it enriched the movie because this specific film, it’s a heroine’s journey. It’s an internal journey of a young woman’s self-actualization. And so I do think it made a lot of sense to have women working below the line as well as in front of it.
John Bucher: You bring up the heroine’s journey, and this certainly is that type of story. Can you talk about how a heroine’s journey is approached differently than a hero’s journey, specifically in this story?
Minhal Baig: Joseph Campbell has The Hero’s Journey. That is the most classical structure of a hero being thrust into a new world and overcoming their weakness or their flaw and doing so in a way that we’re accustomed to seeing represented in film and television. And the heroine’s journey, it’s not that women don’t come of age or they don’t have their own journey. It’s that the stories that I really resonated with are very interior journeys and they’re about self-actualization.
There is a part in that heroine’s journey that is about healing and amending the feminine and masculine selves. So there’s a part of Hala that’s growing. It’s her developing her own sexual agency. It’s about her making sure to keep part of her culture and keeping her faith alive even as she’s reconciling herself in America, and just as a young woman who’s coming of age.
Hala can be seen on Apple TV+ beginning December 6, 2019.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches in the Joseph Campbell Writers Room at Studio School LA and at The LA Film Studies Center. John has also conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.